02.06.23 Review

Unreliable Unity: Despite support for Ukraine, residents of Central and Eastern Europe are highly sensitive to the issue of Ukrainian refugees and susceptible to anti-liberal narratives

Polls indicate that approximately two-thirds of the population of Central and Eastern Europe blame Russia for the outbreak of the war in Ukraine. However, support for Ukraine and anti-Russian sentiments are significantly weaker in the southern part of the region, including Bulgaria, Slovakia, Romania, and Hungary. Here, between 20 and 35% of respondents believe that 'the West provoked Russia.' Despite strong support for democracy and European unity, anti-liberal narratives are quite prevalent across the region, with the public particularly sensitive to the issue of Ukrainian refugees. More than half of the region's inhabitants believe that assisting them worsens the situation for impoverished local residents. These sentiments have the potential to significantly weaken European unity when it comes to support for Ukraine.

According to a survey conducted by the GLOBSEC Democracy and Resilience Centre in eight countries— Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Poland, Latvia, and Lithuania — 64%  of Central and Eastern Europeans blame Russia for the war in Ukraine. However, beneath the apparent unity of public opinion, there is a distinct division into two camps. On one side, there is a consistent pro-European camp that supports Ukraine and harbours hostility toward Russia—Poland, Czech Republic, Latvia, and Lithuania (the northern cluster). On the other side, there are the more hesitant countries that have a more favourable view of Russia and are more sceptical of the 'collective West' — Slovakia, Bulgaria, Romania, and Hungary, who, depending on the issue, find themselves in one group or the other.

In the northern cluster countries, 70 to 80% of those surveyed consider Russia to be responsible for the war, while in the second group of countries, this figure ranges from 40 to 65%. However, one in five people in Romania and Hungary, and every third person in Slovakia and Bulgaria, agree with the statement that 'the West provoked Russia.' In Latvia, compared to 2022, the proportion of those who consider Russia to be the main culprit of the war has increased from 61 to 74%. This surge is presumably linked to the cessation of Russian television broadcasts in the country. In Slovakia, on the other hand, the age of respondents who support this position has decreased from 51% to 40%, while in Bulgaria, it has decreased from 50% to 44%.

On average, 59% of those surveyed across the region believe that sanctions against Russia are important and should remain in effect until it withdraws its troops from Ukraine. However, while this view is held by between 65 and 75% of respondents in most countries (the northern cluster plus Romania), in Hungary, this is just 54%, and in Slovakia and Bulgaria, it is 37 and 38%, respectively. Across the region as a whole, 74% of respondents believe that providing military assistance to Ukraine is the right thing to do. However, in Slovakia and Bulgaria, the number of people who think such assistance makes their country a potential target for Russian attacks exceeds the number who approve of such aid. The same holds true for attitudes towards Ukrainian refugees: in Bulgaria, Slovakia, and Romania, 52, 59, and 64%, respectively, spoke of the necessity to support them, but 70%of those surveyed in those countries believe that refugees 'eat up' aid intended for the impoverished residents of these countries. However, this position is also shared by about 40% of the population in Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Latvia, and approximately 50% in Lithuania and Poland.

On average, 66% of those surveyed consider Russia a threat to their security, but in the northern cluster, this figure ranges from 75 to 86%, while in the southern cluster, it ranges from 34 to 54%. At the same time, the proportion of those across the entire region who do not consider China a threat are still in the majority at 53%, although this figure has decreased from 62% last year. The most significant difference in responses is observed in attitudes towards the United States: while in Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, and Romania, between 53 and 78% of those polled perceive America as a partner, in the Czech Republic, it is 42%, and in Bulgaria, Slovakia, and Hungary, it is around just 20%. Putin receives the highest ratings in Bulgaria (32%), Slovakia (27%), and Hungary (21%). Volodymir Zelensky is only slightly ahead of the Russian president in these countries (37, 31, and 41%, respectively).

There is consensus across the region when it comes to support for democracy. On average, around 80% of the region's inhabitants approve of democracy, with only minor variations between countries. The term 'liberal democracy,' however, is much more difficult to define. Positive attitudes towards this concept are expressed in the Czech Republic (79%), Poland (75%), Romania (68%), Hungary, and Latvia (61-62%), but to a much lesser extent in Bulgaria (50%), Lithuania (47%), and Slovakia (46%). It seems as though respondents do not always understand its meaning. A more reliable marker of the population's 'liberalism' is agreement on the need for guarantees for members of the LGBTQ+ community. The majority of respondents supported this idea in the Czech Republic (72%), Hungary (54%), and Poland (52%), but in other countries, the majority disagreed with it: about 50% in Latvia, approximately 60% in Romania, Slovakia, and Lithuania, and about 70% in Bulgaria.

In sum, the authors of the study note that anti-liberal narratives are quite prevalent in most countries in the region. The most dangerous ones are those related to attitudes towards Ukrainian refugees, as these have the potential to weaken or even undermine European unity in support of Ukraine.